Soccer Cup injects hope and worry into Mali

As the African Cup starts, Malians wonder if investments will pay off for their nation.

It rises like a glittering mirage in this dust-choked capital. Here in one of Africa's poorest nations lies Bamako's sprawling new sports stadium, which holds 50,000 fans and nearly as many cars. It's a sight that makes Mamadou Traore sigh in disbelief.

"We need books, schools, roads, hospitals. Why pay so much for this? There is already a soccer stadium in Bamako," says the art merchant, referring to the rundown and much smaller Modibo Keita stadium, which has been patched up to stage games during the African Cup of Nations, a 16-country tournament that began last Saturday and ends Feb. 10th.

The March 26th soccer stadium - named for the day in 1991 when longtime dictator Moussa Traore was deposed in a coup - is the showpiece of the Cup. But in a country where fewer than half the people have access to clean water, basic health services, and education, the honor of hosting Africa's most popular sports event is weighing like a lead ball.

The previous 22 African Cup competition, dating back to 1957, have been held in more prosperous African countries, mostly in the north and east of the continent. Mali is landlocked and beset by corruption, frequent drought, and rampant disease.

The Confederation of African Football requires host nations to provide sports venues, transportation, and lodging according to internationally recognized standards. Unable to foot much of the bill because of repeated strikes in the public sector and falling prices for the country's main exports in cotton and gold, Mali had to look abroad to fund the tournament. Unable to get loans from donor countries or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Mali has paid more than $100 million, mostly to Chinese companies, to build and upgrade infrastructure and has borrowed nearly as much from China to cover the bill.

Thanks to the cash,it has improved soccer stadiums, airports, and telecommunications and banking systems. It has built player villages in the four other host cities of Sikasso, Mopti, Kayes and Segou to make up for a dearth of hotels.

"I believe there has been a lot of useless spending for this tournament that will drive Mali deeper into debt and make our poverty that much more difficult to overcome," says Choguel Maiga, a main opposition leader, who nonetheless says it is his duty as a Malian to be a good host during the tournament. "We already have a major stadium and we can hardly keep it in decent shape so what are we going to do with the other stadiums after the tournament? I think these will become white elephants. Also, two of the new airports are in areas where outsiders rarely go and where locals don't have money to take planes, so what is the good of that?"

But many here see this infusion of money and improvements as Mali's saving grace.

"Business people and the government have mobilized to radically improve the country's infrastructures and transportation system," says Bamako-based economist Oumar Makalou, a former official with the IMF in Washington. "This will touch not only Bamako but four other cities which rarely see investment of this magnitude. It will also have a favorable impact on tourism."

The government has sold off the player villages to private investors, who will take them over after the competition.

In Mopti, which is a departure point for tourism in the Dogon region and Tombouctou (Timbuktu), the airport has been enlarged, allowing visitors to land there directly from abroad and bypass Bamako. In Segou, a private businessman has bought 40 large modern buses, a contrast to the country's habitually rusted and ailing public transport.

Thiam Abdoulaye N'Doula, a businessman who makes bread for restaurants in Bamako, says hosting the biennial tournament has given Mali a new drive. "What we have seen in the months leading up to the Cup is comparable to the burst of development we saw in 1991 after the military dictatorship was overthrown. However, the investment at that time quickly dried up. I hope this time the effort will be sustained."

The competition is the swan song of Mali's President Alpha Oumar Konare, who is stepping down after presidential elections later this year. In his habit of erecting monuments for every occasion, President Konare has endowed a new suburb of Bamako with an official African Cup of Nations Square. In his speeches, he has called for a tournament without drugs, cheating, or violence.

Mali's team qualified for the tournament only because it is the host. It troubles Awa Sidibe, a retired cashier at Bamako's now defunct racetrack, who fears Mali may actually do well and advance to the late stages of the competition. "Every time Mali plays, there might be violence, win or lose. So I hope Mali will be eliminated quickly so that we can enjoy the rest of the tournament peacefully."

Still, President Konare dreams of a Malian victory, which would be a first. At a ceremony to unveil Bamako's new stadium, the president said to a bemused crowd: "if Mali wins, I will sing a song in my sweetest voice."

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